By: Dana Groom, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist at Southwest Behavioral Services
As the activities director, I continually look for new and different activities and programs to incorporate into our busy days at Southwest Behavioral Services (SBS). My goal as a recreation therapist is to facilitate fun, educational, and interesting activities that not only bring joy to our patients’ lives but also improve mental, cognitive, and physical functioning through means of recreation. I am beyond excited to share with you our new Animal-Assisted Therapy Program featuring my very own pet partner Missy!
What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) provides opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or recreation benefits to enhance quality of life by visits from screened animals and their human partners. You may have heard of similar programs called “Pet Therapy” and “Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA)”. We no longer use the term “Pet Therapy” anymore because it is more closely related to animal behavioral therapies.
What is the difference between AAT and AAA?
AAA is usually facilitated by volunteers and involves pet visits or “meet and greet” activities. AAA has no specific treatment goals, does not require detailed documentation, and has spontaneous visit schedules.
AAT is facilitated by professionals such as Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists (CTRS) and social workers to treat patients. As a CTRS I will determine when AAT is appropriate for our SBS patients, establish specific goals based on patient problems, perform individual treatment, and take notes on progress that is made with each session for each patient.
How can AAT be a meaningful form of treatment at SBS?
There are many benefits of AAT and AAA, they include….
- Outward focus
People who are struggling with mental illnesses may find it easier to connect with animals rather than other people. Animals offer judgment free companionship have been proven to decrease symptoms of depression. Animals can also have a calming affect for those who have dementia and/or mental illnesses. I have been able to relate and build rapport with many of my patients who have a love for animals and their pets.
Patients who have dementia will often reminisce about their favorite pet when they were a child or tell funny stories about their pets that are now being cared for by others. One patient’s daughter referred to their family dog as the “best medicine” for her mother.
My goal is to use AAT for its many benefits at SBS and to add a few more smiles to the unit.
How does the program work?
As of now, SBS will be visited by one special pet, my dog Missy. Missy has been deemed appropriate for the program due to her calm, gentle, and obedient nature. Our unit keeps a file of Missy’s vaccinations and vet information to insure safety for both her and our patients. I, as her handler, have completed an online therapy animal course called Pet Partners. Both Missy and I are in the process of becoming registered as a Pet Partner Team.
Missy has been integrated to the unit through a series of short visits in order to help her become more comfortable in the setting. Now, once every few weeks Missy accompanies me to SBS for longer therapeutic visits. Missy spends times with each patient who welcomes her visit. Missy’s visits include grooming (petting or brushing), walking, treats, playing, reminiscing, observing, and just being in her company.
Our unit has seen great results from this program and it is our hope that Animal-Assisted Therapy will continue to enhance our patients’ treatment and improve their quality of life.